Secondary Literature Discussion Questions

Now that you have all been paired with a critical essay on Marco Polo’s Travels, it’s time to prepare for Tuesday’s group discussions. As you study your article, keep in mind what you have learned about academic writing from of They Say, I Say, and prepare some answers to the following questions:

(1) The authors whom you are reading all began their projects from the same position from which you will start your next papers: they had to figure out how to insert themselves into an academic conversation. Find the rhetorical templates they used to do so, and figure out how they described the consensus view of Marco Polo at the time at which they were writing. Are they trying to smash this consensus view? Expand it? Challenge only one of its central premises? How and when do they tell you?

(2) Once they have told you what “they say,” how do they proceed to the “I say” stage of academic writing? What rhetorical templates do they use? Where in your article is the central thesis? And can you summarize in your own words how your chosen article departs from the consensus view of Marco Polo?

(3) One trick that many scholars are inordinately fond of, and which instantly differentiates academic from journalistic writing, is to drop certain names or terms that they will expect their audience to recognize even without further explanation. In the best of all cases, this maneuver can serve as a convenient shorthand by which to summarize complex issues.  After all, in  academic writing you can take certain things about your audience for granted: an evolutionary biologist, for instance, should be able to talk about the “selfish gene” without always having to explain that this term refers to the theory that evolutionary selection occurs on the level of genes, not on the level of individual organisms. When used incorrectly, however, such a shorthand can also turn into mere jargon intended to simply bludgeon a critic into submission through name dropping.  After all, if an author mentions Kant and I don’t immediately understand why, it must mean that I am stupid, right?
Do your authors use scholarly jargon of any sort? Do you understand what it means? If not, take a quick trip to Wikipedia and see if that resolves the issue. If that still doesn’t help, bring your questions with you for us to discuss as a group.

(4) And finally: now that you’ve read (and hopefully understood) everything that your chosen article says, how would you respond?

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